Debra Wright – Florida Politics

Bill Rufty: Will I-4, Polk County go blue?

RuftyTuesday will reveal whether the I-4 corridor is still an important swing corridor or whether it has become an important Democratic Party corridor.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump hit the counties along that stretch of interstate many times as well — and not just the big cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and Orlando. Smaller cities and towns were targets as well.

Donald Trump held a rally at the Lakeland Linder Airport and Tim Kaine, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s running mate, appeared at a rally at the Lakeland Center.

Polk County, traditionally conservative Republican for two decades, is one of the last pieces of the I-4 corridor Democrats would like to have.

Awakening after 20 years, county party leaders finally succeeded in fielding candidates for all seven legislative races. While no Democratic landslide is in sight and only one likely competitive race this time, the Democrats have taken a page from former Polk County Republican Party Chair Jean Burt.

“I can’t expect people to vote Republican and change their party to Republican unless I give them really good candidates to vote for,” Burt said in 1985 when there was no Republican in office in the county.

Essentially, in each election, she asked well-known people in the community to take one for the party.

The first Republican legislator from Polk since Reconstruction was elected in 1990. A Republican majority was elected in 1996 and there hasn’t been a Democrat elected from Polk since 1998. Now, Democrats seem to be paying attention to Burt’s philosophy.

Two of the bigger names Democrats have fielded are retired Circuit Judge Robert Doyel facing Republican activist Sam Killebrew for House District 41, and former school board member Debra Wright challenging Republican incumbent Kelli Stargel, for Senate District 22.

Doyel amassed a healthy campaign warchest of $92,265, an unusual feat for a Democrat in Polk County. Killebrew finished with $228,699.

Wright raised $26,277 in her Senate campaign, but the incumbent Stargel had received $494,010.

Members of the Florida Legislature receive an annual salary of $29,697.

How About Another Election?

Walk into any voting location in Lakeland and you will be stopped as you come out of the building and asked if you are a resident within the city limits of Lakeland.

“If you answer yes the person behind the desk (placed at the required distance from the polling entrance) will say ‘Well come on over and sign the petition for a strong mayor.’” Lakeland resident Ricky Shira said after casting his ballot in early voting. He didn’t sign.

The petitioners will be out in force Tuesday at the precinct locations too.

Supporters of changing the city charter to create a strong mayor form of government in Lakeland hope to obtain enough signatures to force the issue onto the ballot in 2017.

Most of the people manning the petition tables are paid. But there are volunteers for the group as well. And there are just as many old-time movers and shakers in Lakeland who have formed a group to oppose the strong-mayor proposal.

Currently, while the mayor is elected by the city’s voters for a four-year term, he or she is considered one of the seven members of the commission in the city manager form of government.

Supporters hope to bring the issue to the ballot in November 2017, when city commission elections are held.

Both Tampa and Orlando, on each side of Lakeland, have the strong mayor system of government. Supporters say Lakeland, whose population is now over 110,000, is large enough to have a strong mayor system.

‘Woman’s Work’ …

Don’t tell Dena DeCamp of Lakeland that Donald Trump doesn’t have the support of women. She will read you a litany of women working in his Florida campaign.

“Most of the Republican campaign headquarters across the state are being run by the Florida Federation of Republican women,” said DeCamp of Lakeland, who is the state president.

She insists that statewide women are coming forward and supporting Trump, recalling a 92-year-old woman who had immigrated from Australia decades ago and became a citizen had come in to register to vote for the first time.

“We have had many people well over the age of 21 come into the Lakeland campaign headquarters to register for the first time or to change parties to Republican,” she said.

The forms are then taken to the Polk County Supervisor of Elections office to be recorded.

DeCamp has supported Trump from the day he won the nomination and has often acted as his surrogate in the state, including speaking at his event in Lakeland.

“This is the person we in the early tea party have been waiting for — a businessman who is not a politician,” she said late Monday as she was putting up more campaign signs.

Kelli Stargel draws Polk County Democrat challenger in SD 22 race

A Polk County Democrat announced this week that she will run against Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel in the newly redrawn Senate District 22.

Former Polk County School Board member Debra Wright made the announcement Monday during the Open House at the Democratic Headquarters in Haines City, During the same meeting she earned the support of Polk County Democratic State Committeewoman Ruth Ann Eaddy.

“Ms. Stargel’s record has shown a disregard for what is best for her constituents by writing laws and taking positions that are best for her corporate sponsors and are especially bad for women,” Wright said Monday. “The law she wrote that would make it impossible for a judge to award custody of children in divorce cases to the more responsible parent was so poorly crafted even our Republican governor was persuaded to veto it.”

After the announcement, Eaddy said Polk County Democrats were “delighted” Wright is “taking on one of our most misguided state legislators in this new district.”

Eaddy also noted that Wright’s candidacy marks the entry of a Democrat into the three districts in the Florida Senate and five districts in the Florida House that include Polk County, though Florida Division of Elections records show no Democrat has filed against Republican Sen. Tom Lee in the new SD 20, nor Republican Sen. Denise Grimsley in the new SD 26.

Wright served one term as the District 6 member of the Polk County School Board before losing out to current school board member Lynn Wilson 53-47 in the 2014 election cycle. Once her paperwork is accepted by the Florida Division of Elections, she will be the only candidate in the SD 22 race other than Stargel.

Stargel currently represents SD 15, which includes a southwestern piece of Orange County, a small slice of Osceola County and the northern third of Polk County. That district delivered her a 17-point victory over Democratic challenger Christopher Pennington four years ago, but the newly redrawn SD22 could be a little tougher for the veteran lawmaker.

SD22 includes the northern third of Polk County as well as southern Lake County and is the least GOP-friendly of Polk County’s three new Senate districts.

According to the district plan, Democrats make up 41 percent of the SD 22 electorate compared to a 37 percent share for Republicans. Back in 2012, the district went for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney by about a 2 points, though Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson snagged a 12-point margin over former Republican Congressman Connie Mack IV in the same cycle.

Stargel has a substantial head start in fundraising, however. Through the end of April, the Lakeland Republican had $195,604.46 in her campaign account, though she has only raised $1,000 since the start of the 2016 Legislative Session.

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